Gunpowder and Glory tells the story of Frank Brock - a remarkable forerunner of James Bond and ‘Q’ combined - and his extraordinary contribution to the British war effort between 1914 and 1918 as an inventor, secret agent and combatant.
Woven into the narrative is the rich 300-year-old history of Brock’s Fireworks, the firm started by his five-times great-grandfather, and which he was being groomed to run. Well known across the globe from the greatest rulers and potentates to the lowliest of their subjects, the firm was to revolutionize fireworks themselves, their manufacture and display.
Born in 1884, the young Frank travelled the world for more than ten years staging spectacular firework displays for kings, czars, shahs, sultans and viceroys. A show he staged at Spithead to further the Entente Cordiale when only 21, marked him out in military circles as a genius and, as a sideline, he began secretly developing improved smokescreens for the Navy.
He enlisted as soon as the war broke out, working on inventing an explosive bullet which would bring down the seemingly invincible Zeppelins, then raiding the United Kingdom. The Brock Bullet was first put to the test in September 1916 when it was used against a Zeppelin in the skies above Hertfordshire. More Zeppelins were downed by Brock bullets soon afterwards, ending Germany’s dreams of supremacy in the air.
Frank next applied his pyrotechnical skills to the fight against Germany’s U-boats. He invented huge Dover Flares, which were used to light up the Channel at night ‘as bright as Piccadilly’ and added enormously to the efficiency of anti-submarine patrols in the Dover Straits.
On April 23 1918 he took part in the daring naval raid on Zeebrugge, aimed at disrupting the U-Boat base at Bruges. More VCs were won during this operation than in any other action except Rorke’s Drift. In the months before the raid Frank developed an artificial fog of such impenetrable density that it masked the raiding fleet and was essential to the mission’s success.
Frank himself was considered too valuable to risk his life in the raid, but he insisted on taking part. In the face of intense enemy fire, he was one of the first men ashore. Armed with two pistols, a cutlass, hand grenades and a British Intelligence issued knuckle-duster, he charged into the smoke and bullets shouting ‘Come on, you boys…..’
Beneath a night sky that was too bright for anyone’s liking, the ageing warship sped across the Channel at the head of a ragtag armada of destroyers, launches, old submarines and Mersey ferry-boats. The men on board knew that their chances of making it home again were not high. By common consent, their mission was one of the most audacious and suicidal ever undertaken by the Royal Navy.
For all the tension, one man on board showed little outward sign of concern. As HMS Vindictive steamed towards the Belgian coast on the evening of 22 April 1918, Commander Frank Brock remained his usual unflappable self. He was by nature a supreme optimist. No one was more confident than he of returning home safely.
Frank Arthur Brock was already a legend among the men on the ship.
Had Ian Fleming conjured up James Bond thirty-five years before he did, he might have used him as the template for 007. At thirty-three years old, he was a large, powerful, broad-shouldered man of dark good looks. He could fly an aeroplane and was a superb all-round sportsmen, excelling at football, rugby, golf, swimming and boxing. On top of this he was a first-class shot, as proficient with a revolver as with a rifle. During a remarkable career he had helped catch terrorists in India and risked his life on an intelligence-gathering mission behind enemy lines. The word ‘derring-do’ summed up his raw courage and his love of adventure. His initials - FAB - seemed entirely appropriate.
But this daring young naval officer could have been more than the basis of 007. He might equally well have been the model for Q, the Secret Service quartermaster who supplied Bond’s gadgets. For on top of his other attributes, Frank was an inventor of outstanding talent. One of his ideas had played a crucial role in protecting the nation from Zeppelins, the giant German airships which Kaiser Bill had hoped would bring Britain to its knees. Another had been used with devastating effect to counter the threat from U-boats. His most recent brainchild, deemed essential to the success of the raid in which he was now taking part, was an artificial fog or smoke screen, vastly more efficient than any that had come before, which would cover the approach of the British flotilla as it neared the enemy-occupied Belgian coast.
That he had such a creative mind was not surprising. Invention, innovation and a flair for the theatrical ran in his blood, for he had been born into Britain’s most famous fireworks family. The Brock clan had practised the art of pyrotechnical wizardry for eight generations. More than two centuries earlier Frank’s five times great-grandfather, John Brock, a self-proclaimed ‘artist in fireworks’, had painted London’s night skies with his dazzling displays of sky rockets, spinners, serpents, vertical wheels and firecrackers. By the time of Frank’s birth, Brock’s were the most successful makers of fireworks in Britain, enthralling hundreds of thousands of people a year with their world-famous exhibitions at London’s Crystal Palace.
Frank himself had joined the company as soon as he left school, immersing himself in the science of fireworks and the art of showmanship. For thirteen years he travelled the world putting on elaborate shows in front of vast crowds. One of his specialities was staging pyrotechnical depictions of great naval battles such as the Battle of Trafalgar and the destruction of the Spanish Armada. Now, as he busied himself in the darkness on the deck of Vindictive, it may have occurred to him that tonight’s raid would make an excellent subject for a Crystal Palace spectacular.
But in the meantime there was the rather more pressing matter of winning the war against Germany. After nearly four years the conflict remained as fierce and as costly in lives as ever. This was not the war as portrayed in the adventure stories he had read as a boy; this was carnage on an industrial scale, falling like a scythe on his generation. Tonight’s top secret ‘stunt’ was the most dangerous mission he had undertaken and was born out of desperation and necessity. It was nothing less than an attempt to keep Britain in the war.
German submarines remained a severe threat to British shipping, and were based in large numbers at Bruges. This ancient Belgian port, eight miles inland from the North Sea, was an invaluable outpost for the Germans, being some three hundred miles closer to Dover than their naval ports in the Heligoland Bight. By making use of it, the German Navy was able to threaten Britain’s Atlantic sea traffic and her lines of communication with the continent to deadly effect. By one estimate, Bruges-based submarines were responsible for the destruction of more than 2,500 Allied vessels during the war, amounting to some 4,400,000 tons. Unless Bruges could be neutralised, warned the First Sea Lord, John Jellicoe, Britain would be forced into submission.